Philadelphia Eagles at Washington Redskins
So ... maybe Juan Castillo wasn't the problem in Philly. Before Andy Reid fired his previous defensive coordinator, the Eagles had the league's best defensive completion percentage against passes thrown 10 yards or more. Since former secondary coach Todd Bowles took over a couple weeks back, that same defense has allowed over 70 percent of such passes to be completed, worst in the NFL. Meanwhile, with Michael Vick out of this game due to a concussion, rookie Nick Foles will make his first NFL start. Foles was actually decent last Sunday against the Cowboys after Vick was hurt, throwing for 219 yards, one touchdown, and one interception on 22 completions. However, he had a couple more potential picks dropped. Washington's pass defense should be more forgiving, but unless Bowles figures out a way to stop the bleeding against the deep ball, Robert Griffin III will light him up.
Pick: Redskins 23, Eagles 20
Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers
The good news: Since Ben Roethlisberger came into the NFL in 2004, the Steelers have only lost five games in which Big Ben did not start. The bad news: Four of those losses were against the Baltimore Ravens. Byron Leftwich will sub in for Big Ben, whose shoulder injury is complicated by a rib issue that could actually threaten his life. Leftwich is a serviceable starter, and as long as the Steelers can keep their recently strong running game up, things should be okay against an injury-plagues Baltimore defense that can't seem to stop anyone consistently. For Baltimore's offense, it's no surprise that Joe Flacco has thrown a higher percentage of deep passes than anyone else -- 17.8 percent of his total throws are to targets 20 yards downfield or more, per Pro Football Focus. However, per ESPN Stats & Info, Flacco has 52 overthrown passes of 20 yards or more in the last two seasons, far more than anyone else. This game could very well key on how offensive coordinator Cam Cameron uses his weapons -- more explosions and risk, or better ball control to protect the defense?
Pick: Steelers 25, Ravens 22
Arizona Cardinals at Atlanta Falcons
Cardinals tackles D'Anthony Batiste and Bobby Massie have combined to allow over 100 quarterback pressures this season, which begs the question: Who's coaching these guys up? Some league sources believe that the Cardinals offensive line is woefully unprepared to deal with any manner of stunts and blitzes -- these guys are just getting caught flat-footed. The Falcons aren't sackmasters, per se, but Mike Nolan puts more multiple fronts out there than we've seen from the Falcons in a long time. Rookie Nate Potter replaced Batiste in Arizona's Week 9 loss to the Packers and didn't perform worse, which we supposed could be cause for optimism if you're into low expectations. Of course, when Potter has to deal with John Abraham, and the Falcons are looking to bounce back from their first loss of the year, and the Cards' defense is starting to spring leaks ... well, yikes.
Pick: Falcons 37, Cardinals 12
Cleveland Browns at Dallas Cowboys
Believe it or not, the Cowboys could be on the verge of a breakthrough that might give them an NFC East that nobody seems to want. Per Football Outsiders, Dallas plays one of the easiest schedules down the stretch, and the more we look at the job Rob Ryan is doing with Dallas' defense, the more we like it. If Tony Romo can find some consistency, and his receivers can run routes the way they're supposed to, Dallas could very well be one of the champs of the 2012 stretch run. Meanwhile, the Browns' new ownership and front office are in evaluation mode, and everyone -- including rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden -- is fighting for position.
Pick: Cowboys 29. Browns 18
Green Bay Packers at Detroit Lions
"We're in for a major league challenge this weekend," Lions defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham said of Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay receivers on Friday. "The receivers, they're all tough. When you try to track them, you know, who's the guy on first, second, third down? Then you pick a guy and he's got 15 catches and that's a situation where three or four other guys have one less. So, he spreads the ball around. You can't really focus on one guy because if you try to double up on one of their guys, the other guy will beat you. So, we're going to have to play them all."
After a rocky start to the season (at least for him) Rodgers is right back on track, and Detroit's undermanned secondary could be in trouble. Perhaps Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh will be "motivated" by the fact that he was recently ripped by the latest in a string of anonymous scouts who seem to enjoy throwing stones at NFL players with impunity. Or not. Meanwhile, expect the Lions to make this a close one against a Green Bay defense without Clay Matthews. We're not sure what "Mr. X" has to say about that.
Pick: Packers 28, Lions 26
Cincinnati Bengals at Kansas City Chiefs
While the Bengals are coming off their best game of the season -- a 31-13 win over the New York Giants in which Andy Dalton threw four touchdown passes and no interceptions -- the Chiefs are content to worry about the important things ... like benching players who fumble and telling their defenders to stop celebrating after what they consider "big plays." If the Chiefs have any hope of an upset here, they must pressure Dalton in ways the Giants couldn't -- the second-year QB is pretty darned solid when you don't get after him, but he's vulnerable under pressure.
Pick: Bengals 24, Chiefs 6
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Carolina Panthers
The Carolina Panthers offense continues to frustrate. Cam Newton needs a run game to operate, and he isn't getting one. We're not just talking about running backs making running plays -- we're talking about the play action success that a consistent run game sets up. Per Pro Football Focus, Newton has a passer rating of 97.0 on play action passes, and 67.6 in standard attempts. Now, passer rating is an imperfect stat, and game charting is fallible at best, but you get the picture. The top five quarterbacks by passer rating on pass plays with no play action are Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan, and Drew Brees. In other words, you need an truly great quarterback to succeed without play action, and Cam isn't there yet. Why aren't his coaches helping him? We're not sure, but we expect the resurgent Bucs to take advantage.
Pick: Buccaneers 27, Panthers 13
Jacksonville Jaguars at Houston Texans
Few teams bring more pressure than the Texans, but surprisingly enough, Jags quarterback Blaine Gabbert isn't too bad when he's facing it. Per PFF's metrics, when Gabbert is under pressure, he's 41 of 71, and he's only thrown one pick to four touchdowns in 100 dropbacks under siege. Of course, there's all the times when he isn't under pressure, had to face advanced defenses, and tends to look like he's still in college. Meanwhile, the Texans are coming off a tough 13-6 win over the Bears in which Charles Tillman (in our opinion, the best defensive player in the NFL this season) blanketed half the field and made Andre Johnson an afterthought. The Jags don't have anyone like Tillman in their quiver, and this could get ugly.
Pick: Texans 34, Jaguars 17
New York Jets at St. Louis Rams
Since we know all about the Jets and their various issues, let's talk about the Rams, and their quarterback, Sam Bradford. Greg Cosell of NFL Films and ESPN's NFL Matchup told us in this week's podcast that he sees a new Bradford as the Rams' field general -- Bradford is playing methodically and with greater efficiency. Meanwhile, the Jets couldn't score an offensive touchdown against the Seahawks last Sunday, and they should struggle similarly against St. Louis' improving defense.
Pick: Rams 19, Jets 13
New Orleans Saints at Oakland Raiders
Nobody really wants to be a spoiler, but the Saints seem to have embraced the concept if that's what they're to be this season. New Orleans started the season with four straight losses, but they're 4-1 in their last five games, and things are really on track right now. Drew Brees is as ruthlessly efficient as ever, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is implementing more creative blitzes with his linebackers, and all of a sudden, the Saints have a ground game that should be taken seriously. It should be taken especially seriously by a Raiders defense that's been extremely easy to run against.
Pick: Saints 23, Raiders 13
San Diego Chargers at Denver Broncos
When these teams last faced off on October 15, the Chargers got out to a 24-point lead before collapsing completely and allowing 35 unanswered points in a game that started Denver's recent hot streak.
"A lot was made of that, obviously, because it was a tale of two halves but we did a lot of things to self-destruct in that first half," Broncos head coach John Fox said on Wednesday. "We dropped two kicking plays on the ground. We gave them very positive field position. We had a miscommunication on a pass that went for a pick-six. Seventeen of those points were helped by us so we just played better in the second half and eliminated those problems. We've kind of done that to some degree since."
They certainly have, Right now, the Broncos are first overall in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted efficiency metrics, and the only NFL team in the top 10 on offense, defense, and special teams. Meanwhile, the #FireNorv hashtags are seen with greater frequency all the time. We expect another uptick on Sunday.
Pick: Broncos 38, Chargers 17
Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots
This has been one of the NFL's greatest rivalries over the last decade, and adding Andrew Luck to the mix brings us a new level of drama. Luck's been just as good as we all expected -- if not more so -- and he should be able to continue his success against a Pats defense that has had major problems against the pass over the last few seasons. Adding to Bill Belichick's headaches? This isn't a Colts offense he's ever faced before. The old Colts under Peyton Manning were as vanilla in a formation sense as their uniforms are in a fashion sense. With Luck, and under offensive coordinator/interim head coach Bruce Arians, there's a lot more to watch for. Reggie Wayne plays all over the place, rookie tight end Dwayne Allen has become a short-yardage force, and fellow rookie T.Y. Hilton gives Luck the kind of deep threat he never really had at Stanford. Aqib Talib or not, look for the Pats to struggle against this new multiple offense.
Pick: Colts 27, Patriots 24